Bring me the diaphragm of David Grellier. If memory is the belly of the imagination, then Grellier’s gut is swollen beyond good health, stuffed with sounds and symbols of 1980s American culture.
Working under the pseudonym ‘College,’ Grellier is perhaps best known for founding France’s Valerie Collective label, a haven for blog producers including Russ Chimes and Stephen Falken, aurally pining for the world of The Breakfast Club and Tangerine Dream.
Interestingly, the best kept secret of Valerie might have been Grellier’s 2008 solo LP, a sinister soundscape of teenage desire, perversion and heartbreak called Secret Diary.
Equal parts retro pop and imaginary film score, the record was especially notable for favoring the darker, minimalist tones of the same analog synthesizers that have been more commonly employed for acid-soaked disco bashes.
It didn’t get much better than “Fantasy Park,” a sensual midnight trip through the forest guided by candlelight and Anoraak’s velvety pipes.
Now, Grellier is back with his second effort, the mysteriously titled Northern Council. Call it Secret Diary’s boorish, older brother.
The same keyboards and modules are here, but what is disappointingly absent is the throb of truth and angst that gave the tones of Grellier’s earlier work such hypnotic power.
“Incident” begins promisingly, with a ghostly synth tone that sounds lifted from John Carpenter’s 1982 Antarctic gore machine The Thing.
But before the listener can picture a bearded Kurt Russell, we are walloped with a rapid, successive riff that carries through the rest of the song, with little temporal or tonal change, to an underwhelming close that begs one question: Why?
So begins an unfortunate trend throughout the album, as Grellier takes melodies that vary from striking to stodgy and expands them into simple, three-minute tracks.
As for “Answers,” its only redeeming quality is how similar it sounds to College’s earlier, fuller-bodied “The Energy Story.”
Although Secret Diary had its share of dull songs, they were few and far between. Northern Council doesn’t pick up until its sixth, and best, track, “TWA Flight 450.” Listeners can hear Grellier moving upward from his earlier work, taking them on a romantic, instrumental airplane ride to Mars, Neptune and beyond.
For the first time on the disc, the synths pulse with something more human and soulful than the satisfaction of having programmed a workable preset.
“White Mosaic” manages to keep the flame alive, with Grellier borrowing several tinny MS-20 riffs from fellow countrymen The Teenagers and letting them fill the listener’s eardrums as though they were the corridor of a derelict high school.
“Weisberg Control” shaves the layers down to a solo drone that feels lifted from an LAX terminal, and for a few sweet moments, flies the listener away.
Indeed, the best of Northern Council is an escapist delight for those who prefer their world painted with soft brushes, but as a collective work, Grellier’s efforts are in desperate need of evolution. By now, those four note bass riffs that sounded extracted from the sewer of adolescence on Secret Diary have grown glaringly familiar, as have Grellier’s favored song structures.
What’s missing here is a sense of relevance and passion. Nostalgia alone is no guarantor of an interesting artistic path.
The best outfits in contemporary music lift sounds from eras past — think Cut Copy’s recent Zonoscope — and move beyond the bars of their youth to carve something important from their own experiences.
Grellier has been around the world and worked with enough musicians to have the propensity for a maturer, meatier album, but with Northern Council he has retreated further back into a bedroom festooned with Molly Ringwald posters and Roland hardware. For an LP so serious and non-club friendly, this is a very ill-advised move.
Consider the album’s final number, “Simon’s Past.” What Simon is Grellier referring to? The American Idol judge? William Golding’s young martyr in Lord of the Flies?
The song’s vague robot tones tell us nothing, so I would like to propose this: For the cover of album number three, a severed pig’s head with buzzing flies, superimposed over a neon Macintosh screensaver. Sure, it’s pretentious, but at this stage in the College discography, a little blood and audacity wouldn’t hurt.